Certified Recovery Peer Advocates are people with life experience with substance use, and they use that firsthand knowledge to support the recovery goals of those using drugs and/or alcohol.

PENN YAN — In early 2016, Finger Lakes Area Counseling and Recovery Agency (FLACRA) began a new program to help recovering addicts maintain their sobriety with the coaching and support of fellow addicts — addicts who have attained a level of commitment to their own sobriety and who have been trained to help others negotiate a path through the pitfalls of recovery.

Certified Recovery Peer Advocates are people with life experience with substance use, and they use that firsthand knowledge to support the recovery goals of those using drugs and/or alcohol.

Lynn Seaward, director of community-based services for FLACRA, explains that in this evidence-based practice, peers are natural support experts.

“The relationships they establish can lead to increased feelings of support, safety and well-being among the individuals they serve," Seaward said. "Through a combination of lived experience and professional training, peers can provide an array of services to treatment program participants.”

Peer support services are participant-centered, Seaward said.

“Even though services emphasize knowledge and wisdom through experience, peers are encouraged to be extremely intentional in how they share their story or pull from firsthand knowledge to ensure that support work chiefly benefits program participants," she said. "This program is truly the future of helping others either in crisis or on the way to recovery.”

FLACRA is looking to increase its number of recovery peer coaches and advocates for support in recovery for individuals, families and other important people in the lives of those affected by addiction. Starting with two in 2016, FLACRA now has five peers, but they are stretched hard to serve the needs of the outpatient clinics in Farmington, Geneva, Penn Yan, Newark and Watkins Glen.

Seaward is actively searching for recovering addicts who are interested in starting a career in the field and becoming credentialed CRPAs. She said she hopes to have 10 to 12 peers in training within the next three months, and to eventually have two peers in each FLACRA outpatient clinic.

“I look for someone that has been out of treatment for at least a year,” Seaward said, “and even if someone that hasn’t been out of treatment for a year, I am more than willing to sit with them and come up with ways to begin the process.”

Seaward looks for people who have either been referred by another professional in the field or even another Recovery Peer Coach.

“They know best if someone is ready, because instinctively, they have a good sense for an individual that is in recovery,” she said.

Candidates must complete the Recovery Coach Academy, followed then by additional continuing education hours in ethics and other related topics.

“The goal of these positions is to help decrease the stigma associated with substance abuse and mental health disorders, while creating ways to educate, engage and support others seeking long-term recovery,” Seaward said. “Peers can offer the unique pathway to recovery. It’s a road map. Studies show that helping a person feel connected early in recovery increases her/his chance to maintain recovery.”

Two of those peers are Sarah Manchester, who serves 20 clients in Penn Yan, and the more recently trained Jose Delfi, already with six clients in Geneva. Both of them draw from their personal experience with addiction and recovery to help their clients identify the triggers and stressors that can lead to relapse. It is their professional and personal mission to help their clients learn real coping skills that work for them, help them deal with the barriers to sobriety, and provide the resources and moral support when their clients are in the greatest danger of falling back into drug or alcohol use.

Both Manchester and Delfi say the first key to their work is engaging their clients and to keep them coming back.

“We help give them a bit of a push from contemplation into action,” Delfi said.

“We also help those who have had previous bad experiences in recovery,” Manchester said.

Seaward said, “I think the more we educate the better we can fight this epidemic. It is truly breaking my heart — the individuals we are losing to this terrible illness. Together I think we can, but you know what they say, ‘It takes a village.’ We need to stop saying ‘What is wrong with you?’ and instead ask, ‘What happened to you?’ This dialogue alone will help individuals overcome the trauma or event they may have led them down this path.”

Seaward, Manchester and Delfi are all participants in the Yates Substance Abuse Coalition.